Kajsa Ekis Ekman is Swedish journalist and the author of “Being and Being Bought: Prostitution, Surrogacy and the Split Self,” which was recently translated into French and English. Meghan Murphy spoke with her over the phone from Stockholm.
Meghan Murphy: What led you to write a book about prostitution?
Kajsa Ekis Ekman: Two things: practice and theory. Coming at the subject from two angles is very fruitful and, actually, necessary if you’re going to write about something like prostitution. You have to look at the reality but you also have to have the theory.
When I started writing this book in 2006, the debate about sex work was just kicking off here in Sweden. The law on sexual services was implemented in 1999 and back then the debate was pretty quiet. When the debate began, seemingly out of nowhere, it was immediately huge and heated — suddenly people were saying things like: “This is just a job, this law is moralist, anybody has the right to do whatever they want,” and so on. I saw that feminists and people in leftist movements were catching on to this and changing their opinion, which I found puzzling.
At the same time, I was living in Barcelona and was sharing a flat with a woman who was selling herself on the highway outside the city. So I was seeing everything that was going on first hand. She was staying with a boyfriend who was something like a pimp and who, in the beginning, claimed he was living off bank robberies, though I figured out this wasn’t the case because was never out — he was always at home on the computer or taking her to the highway and back. I soon realized he was living off of her.
I was seeing the reality of this life as well as how others around her were getting into the business of selling sex. Most of them weren’t from Europe — she was Russian and there were some South American women as well. Early on they would claim they were making lots of money but that clearly wasn’t the case. You know, they’d make 10-20 Euros a night, come home, get piss drunk, pass out and then the whole thing would start again the next day.
The reality of the situation didn’t mesh with what was being said in the debate around “sex work” — it was two different worlds. So I started writing about it.
I wrote a couple of articles about prostitution and the response shocked me. I’ve written a number of articles saying, you know: “Smash capitalism now!” and nobody criticized me, but then when I said, like: “You know the laws we have around prostitution? They’re pretty good,” everybody went crazy. I was getting so much hate mail and I thought, “This is weird. You say ‘smash capitalism’ and no one cares – I mean, you’d think that would be radical.” The issue of prostitution seemed to provoke a lot of people. So I decided to focus more on prostitution and began my research, which I did for about four years after that.
M: What was the reaction like?
K: At first I was a bit scared like, “Why me? What do they have against me? I’m a nice person!” And then I realized that the only way to deal with it is to write whatever you believe is the truth. A lot of people reacted by saying I’m a radical feminist. But I’m not — I’m just a feminist. That’s it. I do draw on radical feminist theory, but I’m also using a lot of Marxist literature in my analysis as well — I come at this from a lot of angles
M: Some people believe that if prostitution is legalized it will come out from the underground and somehow be safer for women. What is your perspective on arguments that advocate for legalization as a way to lessen violence against women and to make women in prostitution safer?
K: Well you would have to actually support that assertion with facts and if you look at the reality, at least here in Europe, it hasn’t been the case.
They did a study which evaluated the legalization of prostitution and brothels there, and the study showed that none of these goals had been met. Legalization hadn’t made prostitution safer; it hadn’t provided women with a safe working environment or a steady job and the majority of the women still weren’t paying taxes. What it showed was that, first of all, women stayed in prostitution much longer than they had expected to, and secondly, it had become more difficult for them to leave the industry. If you look at the German experience as well as the Dutch experience you see that it simply wasn’t the case that it had become safer through legalization – in fact it was the opposite.
M: There’s also that idea that prostitution is taboo — which is attached to the idea that sexuality is taboo. Based on that argument, some say that if prostitution was normalized as opposed to “taboo,” it could be sexually liberating. This extends into arguments that say feminists who oppose prostitution are “anti-sex” or prudish or that they are repressing people’s sexualities. What do you think about those arguments?
K: You need to ask: “What is prostitution?” There are two people in this exchange — one of those people wants to have sex and the other doesn’t. That’s the basic criteria. Without this condition you don’t have prostitution. If you have two people that want to have sex with each other – if they’re horny, they’re excited, they’re dying for each other, they’re obviously not going to pay. If you have free sexuality you don’t pay each other.
In prostitution, we’re talking about a kind of “sexuality” where one person doesn’t want to be in a sexual situation and so the other has to bribe her. That’s the basis of prostitution. Now why is it so important we hang on to that? Why is that the height of free sexuality? A situation where one person doesn’t want to be there? And why doesn’t that bother people? Why doesn’t it bother them that one person actually has to be bribed to be in a sexual situation?
M: Especially when it’s coming from feminists who talk about the issue of consent… Some will argue that “it’s consensual – it’s happening between two consenting adults.”
Kajsa Ekis Ekman
K: But what is she consenting to? She’s consenting to the money, not the actual sex. If you say to any prostitute: “You have two options: Either you can take the money and just leave or you can take the money and also stay for the sex,” how many do you think are going to stay for the sex? Not even a die-hard defender of prostitution will claim that most will to stay for the sex. Most of them are going to take the money and leave – which goes to show they don’t actually want the sex – they want the money.
So if you’re so sexually radical or sexually liberal, why don’t you see this situation for what it is? Sex wherein one person doesn’t want sex? How can that not bother you? This is what makes prostitution different from all other types of sexual situations. If you have two people that want it, no one pays and if nobody wants it then obviously there’s no sex at all.
M: I wonder what you think about the idea that prostitution is just a job? For example, the position that says prostitutes simply provide a service like a massage therapist or a hairdresser or a waitress does?
K: Right. So if that’s what we’re talking about then you can just forget the idea that prostitution is about free sexuality — take it away. But if you look at how prostitution is being done, it doesn’t conform to the idea that it’s “just a job.”
I call prostitution a lie. I was interviewing a woman who was in prostitution and she said: “Ok. You can say it’s a job but in that case you know what it would be like? It would be like you jerking off a guy while he’s watching porn. You wouldn’t have to fake it, you wouldn’t have to moan, you wouldn’t have to say anything to him. You would just do it mechanically.” Prostitution is nothing like that. In prostitution, the person who is selling has to pretend that she’s there because she likes it.
The tricky part of prostitution is this: it’s institutionalized a job but at the same time, when she’s paid, she’s going to do her best to pretend that she’s there because she loves it. She’s going to tell him “Oh I’m coming, you’re the best, you’re so sexy, you’re turning me on” and things like that. She’s doing her best to make him forget that he’s paying her.
So sure, make it a job like any other but then we get to just lie there. Let all the women lie there and do nothing and just look at their watches and see how much the men like it. Prostitution is a lie. It’s overly simplistic to say it’s just a job.
In any case, why should we legalize a “job” that has such high rates of abuse, murder, rape, and sexual harassment? Look at the levels of violence and the high mortality rates of people in prostitution – I mean if this were any other job, it would be made illegal from day one. Even in Holland, you see that in the red light district, which is supposedly so safe and so controlled, women are murdered in the actual shop windows all the time. Even legalized prostitution doesn’t confirm to any labour laws or any labour regulations anywhere.
M: In Canada, where I live, feminists and progressives agree that prostituted women should be decriminalized. That is to say that prostituted women don’t deserve to be punished for working in the sex industry and shouldn’t be thrown in jail for doing what they have to do in order to survive. This means that the debate lies in whether or not to decriminalize the pimps and the johns and a lot of people will argue that criminalizing johns further endangers prostituted women or that laws criminalizing pimps will somehow punish family members — for example if a woman is working in prostitution and she lives with her partner or kids, some say that those people will somehow be charged as “pimps.”
K: Are there any statistics? Is that actually a common thing where family members are put in jail for being pimps? They have to show how many actual cases exist wherein family members are jailed on that basis. The problem with this debate is that there are a lot of assumptions and a lot of arguments but no facts. If you want to claim that this law puts family members in jail for being pimps you have to show that. You can’t just state it.
Regarding the idea that criminalizing johns will endanger prostitutes, you have to ask: “Who is committing the violence against prostituted women?” Is it the law? Or is it the clients? And the pimps? Here in Sweden some people make this claim as well. Somehow the law has been made into a physical abuser — the law doesn’t abuse anyone, ok? If there’s anyone who abuses prostituted women it’s the men. And that is the problem. That’s what we need to do something about. There has been no substantial evidence here to show that the situation has become more dangerous after the law. There’s a lot of talk but no substantial evidence to prove that. It’s an assumption. The experience that we have had of the law has been very positive. It’s reduced the number of buyers – one in eight men used to pay for sex and it’s been reduced to one in 13. We now have a very small number of prostitutes in Sweden. Approximately 1500 – 2000 max.
There’s another aspect of the law that nobody talks about and that’s the fact that this law gives some advantage to the prostitutes. Now, women can report a john to the police, but he can’t report her. Say, for example, he treats her badly or there’s something that he won’t agree to or he refuses to pay — she can threaten to report him because what he’s doing is already illegal. He, on the other hand, can’t threaten her with anything because what she’s doing is not illegal. In countries where the prostitute is doing something illegal and he’s not, he has even more power than he already does in what is a very unequal situation to begin with because he can threaten to report her.
M: I’ve noticed that in the U.S. in particular, some of those who might identify as “sex worker rights advocates” will criticize abolitionists for conflating trafficking and prostitution. I wonder if you can talk a bit about that – are prostitution and trafficking connected? Is there a difference between the two?
K: Basically trafficking is the answer to the question of demand and supply and the problem of supply. Trafficking comes in when there isn’t a large enough supply of prostitutes for the demand that exists — if you’re talking in market terms. In the Western world there are never enough women who enter the sex industry voluntarily — there’s always a shortage, to put it that way. The people who do enter the trade are worn out pretty fast and the clients always want “fresh meat” to put it crudely. They want younger women and women who’ve just started. They don’t want the old prostitutes who’ve been in prostitution for fifty years.
On top of that, the high mortality rate and the way it wears on your body makes life in prostitution pretty short. So there’s always demand for more and more people in prostitution. If there were women coming by the millions to the sex industry you wouldn’t need to drag them out of Eastern Europe. I mean, why would you do that? It’s not logical. If there were thousands of women lining up outside brothels saying “Please, let me in to work!” why would the mafia need to drag them across Europe or across the world — there’d be no point. Trafficking exists because there simply aren’t enough women who will go into prostitution willingly. If you want a prostitution industry without trafficking it would have to be a very small industry.
You can’t separate prostitution from trafficking. You would have to decrease demand to such an extent that very few men were actually buying sex. Then you could perhaps be certain that women were there “voluntarily.”
M: I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about the Swedish model or the “Nordic model,” as it’s sometimes called, and what that entails.
K: What a lot of people don’t know is that this model is the result of thirty years of work and research. People think it’s just a bunch of feminists and social workers who decided to wage a war against men or something. No — they started doing research back in the 1970s and looking into the reality of prostitution. This was the first time anyone interviewed people in prostitution on a large scale. The focus was shifting from prostitution being a case of deviance and instead were starting to understand this as a huge social tragedy involving gendered social relationships, poverty, the way women are raised, incest, etc.
After this research was done, the question of what to do came. The answer they came up with was to criminalize the client and legislation went into effect in 1999. It’s been 14 years since then and you can no longer even attempt to pay for sexual services. The law has been very successful not only in that demand has decreased but in that the majority of the population now understands prostitution as a product of gender inequality. Eighty percent of the Swedish population supports the law, which you don’t hear about very much.
What happened then was that traffickers started finding it difficult to establish in Sweden and moved to Norway. Oslo, the capital of Norway, became flooded with Nigerian mafia and all these Norwegian men started paying for sex, which led Norway to adopt the same law. The traffickers proceeded to move to Denmark, which is why Denmark is currently considering adopting the same law.
M: Do exiting services and other supports for people who want to leave the industry exist? What happens to women who lose their income when they leave prostitution?
K: That’s something I want to stress — if you want to adopt a law like this you can’t just implement it and then do nothing. You have to ensure the law is accompanied by appropriate support services. In Sweden we have something called the prostitution units and they aren’t just exiting programs — they are much more. If you have been in the industry you have access to free therapy, help finding housing and employment, and dealing with things like debt, for example.
What’s different in Sweden is that we have a pretty strong welfare state so unlike in Canada or the U.S. prostitution doesn’t exist as the result of extreme poverty. Prostitution in Sweden tends to exist as a result of early sexual abuse and things like that. Women there tend to need help with self-destructive behaviour rather than escaping poverty.
M: Some argue that criminalization is not a good response or not a viable route towards liberation because the law will never work in favor of marginalized people. This means that some folks who identify as anarchist or socialist might say: “I don’t want to give the police more power than they already have even if it’s over men who buy sex or who are violent.” Do you identify as anarchist? Socialist? What do you think about that argument?
K: I used to be an anarchist – maybe I still am a little bit… But I do believe in the state as an important tool. I mean, the state can be anything – it can be a good thing or it can be a bad thing — and it isn’t always necessarily a bad thing. The state can serve the interests of capital, of the military, or of the people. It depends on the historical circumstances. The state is not in itself limited to one function.”I can understand that anarchist argument as well, but think it’s kind of internalizing pessimism. It’s like saying “things will never change.” And in that case, you know, if nothing will ever change, what do you suggest? How do we abolish prostitution then? Are you and your anarchist crowd going to go demonstrate every day outside of the brothel?
The experience with the Swedish police has been really interesting because in the beginning they didn’t understand the point of the law – they didn’t see buying sex as a crime so the police used to treat the johns like people who were caught for speeding. The majority of men who were buying sex were married, so they would ask that the police send the ticket to their office instead of to their home because if it was sent to their home their wives and kids would see it. The police would say: “Of course we’ll send it to your office, don’t worry buddy.”
An education campaign within the police changed that and made the officers understand that this was about protecting women, not men. If you hear the trafficking unit lectures, you would think they were radical feminists — they’re amazing. The police now troll the streets for sex buyers saying things like: “Did something happen where men can’t control their own dicks? Man, that’s really bad – they need to stop doing this,” and I think that’s really amazing. You have to work with the police force – if you don’t work with them they will have the same attitudes as before, which is that the women are the criminals and the men are just being men.
M: How is prostitution tied to gender equality and how do laws like the one in Sweden impact the status of women as whole?
K: Sex work lobbyists will try to paint prostitution as though it’s not a gender issue but rather just a “buyer” and a “seller.” They’re talking in market terms and I think that’s very interesting. In my book I also study pro-prostitution discourse from 100 years ago and the difference between then and now is that, back then people didn’t talk about selling and buying — it wasn’t a market thing — it was only seen as being about men and women. They thought prostitutes were fallen women and that they weren’t good for anything else, like, if they weren’t in prostitution they’d be criminals. Regarding the men, the idea was that men needed access to prostitutes because otherwise they would be unruly, would rape the “decent women,” and wouldn’t be able to stay in their marriages. In that way, men having this “outlet” was presented as a good thing for the “decent women.” The discourse was very gendered.
A century later, the feminist movement has happened and while people are still defending this institution, the discourse has changed. People don’t want talk about men and women, they want to talk about it in market terms. But it’s still very much a gendered issue — I mean, the buyers are almost 100% men and the sellers, at least here in Sweden, are at least 90% women. It’s just another way of arranging relations between men and women and if we’re talking about sexuality I don’t think we’ll ever have positive or egalitarian sexual relationships between men and women as long as prostitution exists and is prevalent in this society. What prostitution does to men who pay for sex to keep them in a lie. I mean, these men they don’t even know what to do in bed — they don’t know how to satisfy a women and they don’t understand women’s bodies because the women they are having sex with are paid to tell them that they’re the best, that they’re this super lover. So he’s paying her then coming home and doing the same thing to his wife and she’s like, “umm, no…” and he just thinks she’s boring and prudish or that there’s something wrong with her. So he will never learn the truth about how to do things in bed — it just perpetuates a kind of lie.
It also makes women in prostitution conform to a specific idea of what a woman “supposed” to be like in bed. It isn’t about both people in the prostitution contract, it’s about establishing a relationship where sex is about what men want — the man is the buyer so he will get what he wants. It’s not about satisfying her. If you’re a real feminist and if you actually want women to enjoy sex, I don’t understand how you can defend an institution that is all about renouncing any kind of desire that women have and only satisfying his desires.